Aspen Institute’s Panel Discussion on American Energy Leadership

The above panel discussion — moderated by Coral Davenport, who is an Energy and Environment Policy Reporter for The New York Times — features three energy and policy experts.

Meghan O’Sullivan is a professor of International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School. From 2004-2007 she was the deputy National Security Advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan.
Michael Levi is the Director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change, Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America’s Future.
Marvin Odum is president of Shell Oil Company.

The discussion was part of the Aspen Institute’s 2014 Ideas Festival. It took place on Sunday afternoon, June 29, 2014 in the Booz Allen Hamilton Room of the Koch Building at the Institute’s idyllic campus in Aspen, Colorado.

A search of the transcript reveals the following word and phrase count:

  • oil – 51 instances
  • natural gas – 45 instances
  • renewables – 12 instances
  • coal – 16 instances (all negative)
  • solar – 8 instances
  • efficiency – 6 instances
  • alternative (energy) – 3 instances
  • wind – 2 instances
  • nuclear – 2 instances (32:24) and (45:04)

Both the word count and watching the discussion indicate that the Establishment in energy is still concentrated on the oil and natural gas industry. As Odum mentioned, Shell’s annual energy output is balanced with a roughly 50-50 mix of those two hydrocarbon products.

Here is the context of the first of the two mentions of ‘nuclear’; Michael Levi was the speaker who uttered the ‘N’ word in both instances.

Coral Davenport (30:22): Natural gas, though, is still a fossil fuel. I think in the White House that they are ecstatic that all of this cheap natural gas is available, that they can put forth these regulations, the market is going to natural gas. It has half the carbon pollution of coal, but what climate scientists would say is that this is maybe a short term good news story, but they are really concerned about what it means for the long term.

What if the electricity market shifts to natural gas? That’s what is being built; that’s what is being invested in. That might be enough for the United States to get to the reductions that President Obama has pledged to meet by 2020 — a 17% reduction in carbon pollution from 2005 by 2020. It is absolutely not at all possible just on the shift to natural gas to get to the reductions, the really difficult, meaty reductions that are needed by 2050, an 80% reduction.

And so I hear climate scientists, I hear environmentalists saying they’re a little uneasy about this fall back to natural gas. That gets locked-in, it doesn’t take the economy where it needs to go. It doesn’t push the economy to those further reductions and yet natural gas is so easy. How does that get dealt with?

Michael Levi (32:24): I look to climate scientists to inform the risk assessment around climate change. To help us understand what’s happening, what it’s impact is — not just on temperatures but on other climatic phenomenon — and what different future pathways for total emissions might do.

I look to people who study the energy system and the economy to map out paths, efficient paths, for getting there.

When I look at the paths that they model, they often involve a boost in the near term from natural gas as it displaces coal, and then a subsequent transition to zero carbon fuels in the electricity sector. Nuclear, renewables or coal or gas with carbon capture and sequestration, technology that takes the emissions and puts them underground. All of these are expensive right now; all of these areas, but there is opportunity to make progress on them.

(Emphasis in original.)

Michael is apparently unaware that many people who are trained and have professional experience as climate scientists have been investing their considerable intellectual assets in learning as much as possible about the energy system and the economy. They recognize many key limitations to the scenarios being promoted by oil and gas companies and the people whose livelihoods are funded with the “seed” money that Odum describes that his company and others in the business spread around. Some of them thoroughly understand the importance of infrastructure “lock-in” and the risk of building bridges that lead nowhere new.

There are major differences between nuclear, renewables and carbon capture and sequestration.

Nuclear energy exists and has been adequately proven to be a scalable, reliable, power source that adds several underused and readily available elements (uranium, thorium and plutonium) to our power fuel choices. In contrast, CCS has only been attempted on a pilot scale and even those experiments have been fraught with cost and value challenges. It is also a technology that inherently reduces our available fuel by reducing power plant efficiency by 20-40% while still requiring supplies from the same limited sources used today.

The diffuse, weather dependent sources that qualify for the renewable brand controlled by organizations like the American Council On Renewable Energy are not capable of providing the quantity of reliable power needed for economic prosperity. That’s why I prefer to call them by the technically more accurate term of “unreliables.”

I reject the continued assertions that “nuclear is expensive” from people who are fundamentally skeptical about nuclear energy technology. No honest engineer involved in nuclear power plant design would attempt to claim that she has ever been told to start with a goal of reducing cost by eliminating unnecessary major expenses. No honest outside observer who understands the benefits of series production can assert that are many nuclear energy programs — outside of a few Navy programs — that focused on reproduction of proven designs, interchangeable parts, and steady workforce development.

Here is the context in which Levi mentioned ‘nuclear’ a second time.

Michael Levi (45:00): Had we decided ten years ago that the solution to climate change was to mandate nuclear power, we wouldn’t be able to take advantage in an effective way of cheap natural gas as a substitute for coal.

That statement makes no sense unless Michael assumes that a policy to ‘mandate nuclear power’ would have meant actively preventing the investments that were made in developing natural gas extraction capability. Logically, if we had started building a substantial number of nuclear power plants 10 years ago under some kind of program that mandated their construction, we would be in the even more enviable position of having both growing supplies of nuclear generated electricity and an abundant supply of natural gas that would be searching for markets.

There wouldn’t be much discussion in Washington or anywhere else about whether or not companies that were extracting natural gas here would be allowed to export their abundant, but increasingly redundant natural gas to places that would pay three to ten times an even lower domestic price than exists today.

Despite numerous opportunities, the closest that Marvin Odum — President of Shell Oil — could bring himself to acknowledging the existence of nuclear energy was by referring to “alternative and renewable energies” (52:54).

This panel discussion is just one more example of how the powers-that-be in the American energy pundit universe cooperate in dismissing nuclear energy as an important energy source. They must recognize that it is a useful tool in the needed effort to slow the growth of fossil fuel demand and prices. It is absolutely required if we want abundant, reliable power without adding to our already high level of CO2 production.

Perhaps the group’s belief is that the technology will just go away if it is ignored enough times.

During the past few months, I have had the good fortune of spending a substantial amount of time with a very bright 4-year old with a naturally questioning attitude. She taught me again how useful it can be to be persistent if the “grown-ups” in the room are ignoring her very important and pertinent questions.

That is one of many good models for nuclear energy advocates to follow. It might annoy the grown-ups, but persistently interjecting ourselves into their conversation can result in averting potential disaster. Persistence worked when my granddaughter asked – several times — “Where is my baby brother?” and we found him gleefully crawling up the wooden stairs when he had just been under our feet in the kitchen.

Update (8/26/2014) Just in case you’d like to hear the 4-year old voice that asked “Where is my baby brother?” check out the below video. Maybe you can even guess why we spent so much time together during the past few months.

PS – In case you missed it, there is a reason I specifically mentioned the names of the building and room at the Aspen Meadows Conference Center where the discussion occurred. Comments on that issue are welcome. Looking at a facility map that includes even more of the building names might expand the conversation in several other interesting directions.

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